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NEA News

Eight Tips for Teaching to Empower All Students

In this latest NEA Thriving in Academe guide, the author relies on her many years of experience in higher-ed classrooms to share what works.
Illustration of students lifting barbells
Published: August 30, 2023

Thriving in Academe is a joint project of NEA and the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education ( For more information, contact the editor, Larissa Pires ( ) at Georgia Southern University or Mary Ellen Flannery ([email protected]) at NEA.

The nation’s college and university classrooms are rapidly changing in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, class, language, politics, sexuality, ability and more. The question is: Are today’s faculty ready for these changes? Given the lack of training that faculty receive in terms of teaching, and that most faculty do not regularly consult teaching-related research, I think we have ample work to do to provide the best learning experiences for students.

After years of evidence-based research on student success, here are my tips for empowering all students:

  1. Expect student success: Research tells us that faculty often view students from a deficit lens rather than considering the assets they bring to the classroom. A deficit lens is especially prevalent when faculty interact with students of color and low-income students. However, when faculty treat all students as valuable contributors to class discussions and assignments, students tend to feel a greater sense of belonging, thus increasing their engagement and overall improving their  performance in class.  
  2. Consider students’ needs: As faculty, we are often focused on our own needs as we balance research, teaching, and service. When designing courses and assignments, we often look for ways to make our lives easier. However, to serve a more diverse classroom we should also focus on students’ needs. For example, how often do we think about students’ schedules, ranging from registered classes to their work schedules? Could we allow for greater assignment flexibility, maybe incorporating both fixed and flexible due dates? Should we review our reading assignments and coursework to ensure that we aren’t simply assigning busy work, but assignments that connect to students’ future lives?
  3. Become intentionally inclusive and diversity aware: Today’s students are embracing their identities and bringing them to the classroom. As faculty, we must learn how to be accepting and open to diverse expressions. Are we taking advantage of resources such as on-campus offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and their offered trainings? For institutions with DEI offices under attack, are we engaging with training held elsewhere—or virtually—so that we can continue learning how to support students despite institutional limitations? Are we seeking updated information on DEI the same way we do when it comes to our specific fields of research? 
  4. Communicate constructively: Academic freedom is essential to providing an honest foundation for learning. However, in the name of academic freedom, we are often protective of what happens in our classrooms and on our syllabi. We rarely work together to co-construct a curriculum. Research shows that faculty who co-construct syllabi and regularly meet with peers to discuss teaching and learning have higher retention rates and more successful students. Students are receptive to the ways that courses connect to each other and how faculty teach in conversation with one another. 
  5. Be relevant: Culturally relevant assignments are essential to the learning process. Students want to see themselves and want to be able to relate to the material presented in classes. When was the last time you reviewed your syllabi and coursework to ensure that the readings, assignments, and course activities are current and speak to a diverse audience? Have you reviewed your assigned authors and assignments to ensure they are relatable, rooted in the local or regional community, or speak to diverse cultural traditions? 
  6. Stay positive and reassuring: Today’s students are bombarded with research, media, and messages that talk about the world as if it won’t be here much longer. Imagine the impact that these messages—despite being necessary for change—have on students. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues abound. While students often don’t know where they fit in the world and how they can bring positive changes, we must ensure they understand that they are part of something larger than themselves, that they have a role to play in larger society, and that their contributions matter.
  7. Promote and model collaboration: Research shows that students who are encouraged to collaborate rather than compete are more academically and socially successful. Faculty can foster classroom collaboration by stressing how success and growth are multifaceted and intertwined. How often do you ask your students to support each other? Do you require assignments that foster creativity and collaboration while using language that encourages support  over competition?
  8. Promote healthy discussions: Critical thinking skills are foundational to learning and functioning in society. It can be tricky to foster classroom dialogue around controversial ideas and to get students to engage with those with whom they disagree. Do you provide opportunities for evidence-based debate? Do you provide a diverse range of resources with readings that help students see the many dimensions of an issue? Do you regularly engage with your faculty colleagues around best practices for handling debate or significant differences in ideological thinking among students?

These practices focus on educating the diverse nation in front of us and may be controversial given the backlash against inclusiveness, intersectionality, and cultural relevance. It is essential that, as faculty, we do our very best to provide a comprehensive, inclusive, and collaborative learning environment for students to accomplish their personal goals, inspire those around them, and help us move closer to improving some of the world’s mounting problems. 

Institutional initiatives

In addition to the work that faculty do in classrooms, institutional initiatives an be helpful. Here, I offer three approaches to ensure that our classrooms are inclusive, empowering, and remain a place of critical thinking and learning: 

  1. Incorporate pedagogical training: Courses in pedagogy and teaching higher education should be required by graduate programs, especially Ph.D. programs. Colleges of education throughout the nation have faculty experts on teaching who can teach courses related to college teaching and inclusive teaching. Requiring these types of courses as part of all Ph.D. programs, regardless of discipline, will better prepare instructors in higher ed, and center teaching in the profession. 

  2. Incorporate faculty training: New faculty orientation should require new faculty to attend inclusive teaching training. This offers the opportunity for faculty to interact and build relationships across the institution, and serves as a sounding board for new teaching ideas or teaching concerns. 

  3. Formalize training resources: To provide consistent training in teaching innovation for all faculty, colleges and universities should   establish and support centers for teaching and learning. These wrap around services will move us closer to making inclusive teaching central to faculty roles.

Marybeth Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair & a Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She is also the author of Educating a Diverse Nation (Harvard University Press, 2015); Making Black Scientists (Harvard University Press, 2019), and Doing the Right Thing (Princeton University Press, 2023)


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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.